Among our closest neighbours, when I was growing up, were three Sicilian families from a poor rural community. Two brothers had married two sisters and, after they settled in the Essex new town of Harlow, the couples lived next door to each other on our quiet cul-de-sac; the sisters’ younger brother was across the road in a corner plot. The Sicilian families came to England in search of greater opportunity and established a successful commercial horticultural nursery in the Lee Valley. Their children were my close friends. They were born in Essex and spoke Estuary English but never called themselves English. This used to bother me – and also offered early insight into the complex questions of identity in the multinational British state in which I was growing up and trying to understand.
My friends had Italian names and spoke an Italian dialect at home. They supported the Italian national football team and celebrated noisily outside our house when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain. They were also proudly British. I once tried to convince one of my friends that he was English and for some reason it mattered to me greatly that he agreed. “I’m British,” he said. “And Sicilian. And Italian.” But not English. Never English. He had deeper loyalties to a country in which he’d never lived but whose culture ran through him.
I encountered similar attitudes among my black friends – this was in the 1980s – who called themselves British, or more accurately black British, but never English. They were born in England and relished London street culture – the football, music, fashion, nightclubs – but Englishness remained problematic. For them, it was associated with whiteness and the legacy of colonialism, with feelings of exclusion and memories of the casual racism of the mainstream culture of their childhoods. British, not English. Never English.
As a unifying identity Britishness was perhaps at its most coherent during the two world wars and their immediate aftermath. As a binding sense of British nationhood fades away in an era of rising Scottish and English nationalism, and with it a shared vocabulary and common purpose, we can ask: what is England?
England emerged out of the ancient kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and, in the tenth century, Athelstan, king of the West Saxons, used the new title of “rex Anglorum” – “king of the English”. Under the rule of Athelstan, England became one nation for the first time in 929. It has had strong central government since Anglo-Saxon times, though there have been periods of prolonged dynastic and civil war, and class and regional divisions are entrenched. Following the Act of Union of 1707, the English became British. The transition was consensual, not coercive. British national identity and an island mentality were constructed in opposition to an “other”: Catholicism; hostile and rivalrous European states. The island nation had boundaries “marked out by the sea, clear, incontrovertible, apparently preordained”, as Linda Colley wrote. Scotland retained autonomous legal, religious and educational institutions, but Britishness was seen as an extension of Englishness. “As a political and cultural force, Englishness had to be kept elitist, while in its popular form it had to be effaced,” wrote Robert Colls in Identity of England.
Since the Second World War, Britain (specifically England) has absorbed waves of migrants perhaps more successfully than any other European country and without the emergence of a significant neo-fascist party or movement, as in France. The notion of post-imperial Britishness – as a legal, civic, inclusive, non-racial identity – has eased this absorption of millions of people of different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities. “We don’t do flags on the lawn,” as David Cameron once put it. But the bond between patriotism and unionism cherished by my mother’s wartime generation has weakened in recent decades and British nationalism has lost much of its salience.
Today England is the largest country in Europe not to have its own political institutions. The original devolution reforms of 1999 were introduced to provide a workable solution to the asymmetric power and dominance of England within the United Kingdom (84 per cent of the UK’s population of 66 million live in England). But with the strengthening of Scottish nationalism, the English have been “forced to ask themselves the kinds of questions that other nations” have long engaged with, writes Krishnan Kumar in The Making of English National Identity.
Who are we now? That is the deceptively simple question I pose in my new book. As the SNP agitates for a second make-or-break referendum, England is struggling for self-definition and self-understanding. Yet even as the UK fragments, or perhaps because it fragments, we are also experiencing a reawakening of English national consciousness.
“What can the England of 1840 have in common with the England of 1940?” wrote George Orwell as the bombs fell on London during the Blitz. “But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”
The meaning of who we are lies in this paradox of changing changelessness, an English identity always shifting, always contested, never settled. And this much we know: the English as they are today, rather than as they used to be, or wish to be, are locked in a cycle of convulsive change, whether the United Kingdom endures or not.
“Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England”, on which this column draws, is published on 31 March (Picador)
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain